The Art of Artifacts

How IU led a poet to Ireland and the Library of Congress.

Noah Willman

On a gray day in early December, I set off on foot from Washington D.C.’s Union Station. As I hurry down the wide boulevards, passing massive limestone buildings — fortresses of culture, government, and history — I lengthen my strides to match the scale of the nation’s capital. Plus, I’m running late for an appointment, and these city blocks are enormous.

Paul Kwan Asta (M.F.A. ’16, Creative Writing) understands; he makes this same commute by train and foot to his job as a conservation library technician at the Library of Congress. In the library’s marbled central hall, gazing up at the European-inspired murals and mosaics, he tells me the magnitude still strikes awe in him. He points to a corner of the ceiling. “That’s the Poet Laureate’s office,” he says, breaking into incredulous laughter.

It’s that same daily astonishment — discovery afforded by a sense of being slightly out of place — that’s pushed Paul along his surprising path: from working at Target to studying poetry at IU, then in Ireland, and now restoring precious artifacts at the largest library in the world.

Born in Korea and raised by adoptive parents in the Chicago suburbs, Paul has always been drawn to both the mechanisms of language and to working with his hands. Growing up as a Midwestern millennial, he played video games and guitar, saving up for fresh sneakers and tickets to pop-punk concerts. While an undergrad at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he worked as a library cataloger, roaming the stacks with long electric-blue hair. And he wrote, bringing together the self-aware humor of the Internet and consumer culture touchstones with urgent interior questions.

Asta currently works as a conservation library technician for the Library of Congress, where he helps conserve and restore precious books and documents.

His idiosyncratic perspective and poetry earned him a fully funded fellowship to IU’s highly ranked creative writing program. Once in Bloomington, he discovered an opportunity in addition to poetry: the famous Lilly Library, which houses 450,000 rare books, 8.5 million manuscripts, 150,000 pieces of sheet music, and 32,000 mechanical puzzles.

“My first week at IU, [professor and poet] Cathy Bowman took us to the Lilly,” Paul tells me. “Suddenly I’m staring at drafts of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Sylvia Plath’s diary from Cambridge, where she’s writing down everything she ate that day: ‘Blackberry jam on toast. I hate my life.’” He laughs. “I’m holding these in my hands! That’s nuts. I just thought, wouldn’t it be cool to work at a place like this?”

Paul applied for a student job at the Lilly, telling the supervisor he had an interest in conservation and books as art and artifact. He describes the first day as a test of his agility: “[My supervisor] sat me down in this tiny windowless corner and said, ‘Here are the directions. Make a tiny box.’ Then stared at me the whole time to see how good I was with my hands.”

By the following summer, Paul was holding down two part-time positions at the Lilly. Head Conservator Jim Canary took Paul under his wing as he learned conservation techniques as well as constructing exhibits. Paul says everyone should take a class with Canary, a world-renowned conservator whom he describes as a “gentle soul.” In Canary’s course on book arts, Paul created a poetry project titled Storm and Sky. He sewed battery-operated LED lights into a book’s cover, which in turn were connected to a hidden voice-activator.

“When you read out loud, your voice created the storm,” Paul says. “That’s the intersection that draws me to this work — being crafty on multiple levels, in poetry and in how it exists in the physical space, too.”

We pass through a huge, domed reading room, which Paul explains was modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. Paul then shows me an illuminated Gutenberg Bible and an exhibit on baseball where he measures the room’s humidity once a week, and finally he leads me underground into the extensive tunnel network used by government workers. In two weeks, the government will enter the longest shutdown in history, but today Washington’s veins are alive with activity. I follow deeper into the unmarked interior, corridor after corridor, Paul beeping through coded doors, until we finally reach his office. I tell him I have no idea how to get out of here. “We’re in the Upside Down,” he jokes.

In the beige labyrinth, Paul’s workspace is recognizable by its humor. His blue smock, for example, is decorated with official-looking patches — not only for the Library of Congress but the House of Representatives, NASA, and Hufflepuff House. He directs my attention to the “Wall of Glory” above his desk, where he’s plastered every HR-issued safety training certification as though they’re advanced diplomas. Of course, he’s got plenty of those, too. In his last year at IU, Paul received a prestigious Fulbright fellowship, which he used to travel to the University College Cork in Ireland to continue his poetry studies.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Irish literature. Eavann Boland and Samuel Beckett — I love what they do, not sure why. Something about indeterminate space and suffering,” he says, laughing.

Asta's current primary project is to restore more than 3,000 delicate items from North Korea.

As he peered at ancient manuscripts and roamed the green hills, Paul fell in love with Ireland. He just didn’t expect to feel so at home.

“Initially, I didn’t feel connected to Ireland, which was the idea,” he says. “A lot of my desire to go to Ireland was for further displacement — of seeing who I was when I had no identity.”

Paul says he admires how the Irish “go all in on the arts,” and recounts listening to traditional music in the pubs and the “Echo Boys” singing the day’s news in the street. When he wanted to create chapbooks for his classmates as an end-of-term thank-you gift, he wandered into a local bookbindery and cold-requested to borrow the necessary tools.

“The proprietor had no reason to trust me,” he says, “but she lent me the tools in exchange for one of the books I made.”

I suggest that he may have moved from one of the most lyrical, poetic places on earth to one of the least: Washington, D.C.

“My life in Ireland was a dream,” Paul admits. “And this life is a different dream. But if this is the ‘bad place,’ then I’m still doing okay.”

Paul gives me the tour of the workroom; he shares the space with fellow technicians, who occasionally break for Pokémon GO raids. He says that “safe handling is always part of the job,” though he admits that gloves can get in the way of deft fingers. There are faded brochures spread on a mat along with a range of tools: rulers, tweezers, micro spatula, scalpel, brush, lead weight, and two bone folders, which are used for un-creasing and burnishing. He shows me what he made for an office holiday party: a two-foot-high working Ferris wheel that he built without a blueprint.

“I’ve always been good at making things,” he says. “I took like three physics classes in high school. I think that’s why form is so fun for me in poetry.”

“Sometimes I don’t know what [a document] is until it’s done. But I get to see things that surprise me every day.”

Some conservators specialize in certain materials, but Paul’s team works with a wide range of documents, objects and tasks.

“We never know what’s going to come in or what we’ll be asked to do,” he says.

His current primary project is to restore more than 3,000 delicate items from North Korea, which were found by U.S. forces during the Korean War and locked away — until now. Paul is the only technician working on the project and must complete restoration before the papers can be digitized.

“I’ve done 1,700 items so far. It’s longer than Ulysses,” he says.

He describes how he handles the papers, which Paul laments are in terrible condition. He cleans and humidifies the documents, then flattens and un-creases them, repairing and mending any tears.

“These old documents have been sitting in puddles for 55 years, and they’re deteriorated and covered in dirt and sometimes I can’t even read them, but I get to restore them,” Paul says. “Sometimes I don’t know what it is until it’s done. But I get to see things that surprise me every day.”

This willingness to linger in uncertainty is what’s brought Paul this far, geographically and professionally. And as his poems continue to evolve, he trusts himself to push through discomfort into discovery.

“It’s the same with my poetry: the reason I love it is that I’m crafting something,” he says. “I don’t know what it is necessarily, but a good poem always surprises me. I do the work for that surprise."

Disclaimer: The content of this profile is personal and does not reflect the position of the Library of Congress.

Katie Moulton

Katie Moulton is a writer, editor, and music critic. Her writing has appeared in Sewanee Review, Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, No Depression, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by fellowships and awards from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Tin House, and Indiana University, where she earned her M.F.A. and was the editor of Indiana Review. Her audio memoir, Dead Dad Club, is forthcoming from Audible. Originally from St. Louis, she makes her home in Baltimore.